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Carlos Beltran will play through the pain, or he'll leave the Yankees hurting

The Yankees badly need Carlos Beltran's bat in their lineup, though the soon-to-be 38-year-old admits he'll never have a pain-free season again. Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- If it's possible for a team to miss a player it has never really had, that's how the Yankees feel about Carlos Beltran.

For the first 16 years of what has been a borderline Hall of Fame career, Beltran averaged 22 home runs, 83 RBIs, a .283 batting average and an OPS over .850.

But in his first season as a Yankee, the numbers were 15-49-.233 and .703, the last two career lows.

This was not the player the Yankees signed to a three-year, $45 million contract. This was the ghost of Beltran, a player who has always done his best work in October, a month the Yankees have not visited since 2012.

And with Beltran hitting the way he did in 2014, there was no way they were getting there last year, either.

The same probably holds true for this year. The Yankees are counting on Beltran to hit in the middle of their lineup -- possibly third -- to play right field essentially on a daily basis, and to put up the kind of numbers that prompted them to sign him in the first place, even if he will turn 38 before the season is 20 games old. They will get their first look at Beltran this spring in Friday night's game against the Pirates.

Their hope for a bounce-back year is based on the belief that Beltran's problems last season were solely the result of the bone chips that turned his right elbow into a searing cauldron, and that offseason surgery to remove them and shave down a bone spur will restore Beltran to the player he was with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013 when he put up 24-84-.296-.830, or even 2012, when the numbers were 32 and 97 with an .842 OPS.

Although the Yankees have taken things slowly with Beltran this spring -- he will be the last regular position player to get into a game when he starts Friday night -- Beltran said his elbow showed immediate improvement right after the surgery and he began swinging again in December.

"When I took my first swing I could tell it was different," Beltran said. "Which was a little weird because normally when you have surgery, you worry a little bit about how the elbow is going to respond. And the next day I woke up feeling fine. So I said, 'OK, now it's in the past. Let's continue to strengthen the elbow and get better.' "

Said manager Joe Girardi: "He could be a huge boost to our lineup. You could do a lot of different things with him offensively. We could do some different things in the lineup because he's a switch hitter. We really missed him. We missed his production last year. It's important to get it back."

But in reality, after April, the Yankees never really had it. In his first month as a Yankee, the Beltran gamble -- is there really any other way to look at a deal that guarantees a player $15 million for the season in which he turns 39, as Beltran will next year? -- looked as if it might pay off.

Beltran hit five home runs that month, knocked in 13 runs and batted .263. Carried over the course of a season, those project to more-than-respectable numbers.

But then began the steady decline: Beltran batted just .183 with three home runs and 11 RBIs for all of May and June, resurged a bit in July but spiraled downward again in August and September. He did not hit a home run after Aug. 23.

Girardi tends to think Beltran's problems were the result of the scary tumble he took over a wall chasing a foul ball against Tampa Bay on April 17, but Beltran disagrees. Although he suffered a jammed left shoulder and a sprained right wrist in the awkward landing, he missed only one game before returning to the lineup.

Beltran says he thinks his season began to go south on a swing in the fifth inning against the Mets' Bartolo Colon on May 12, after which he left the game.

With the exception of a brief stretch of games after receiving a cortisone shot in the elbow, Beltran said he never had another pain-free swing, or throw, for the remainder of the season.

"Once the cortisone shot wore off, it was worse," he said. "It bothered me to the point where every day I'd show up to the ballpark, and it was like, how I can't play, how I can't swing the bat, because of the pain. Every time I'd swing the bat, swing and miss, it'd be a big-time pain in my elbow."

And a big-time pain in other areas to the Yankees, who had already lost a good portion of the power in their lineup with Alex Rodriguez on a year-long suspension and Mark Teixeira in and out of the lineup with nagging wrist and leg injuries.

"It was tough on us as a team," Beltran said. "A lot of key guys got hurt. So the key is that if we find a way to stay healthy as a team, I don't see a reason why we cannot compete in our division."

They certainly can't compete without a more threatening lineup than the one they fielded most days last season. Jacoby Ellsbury is a fine player, but he can't be hitting third. The Yankees can't afford to get a .689 OPS out of the cleanup spot in their lineup, or a .684 out of the No. 5 hole.

To be the Yankees again, they need better years from Beltran, Teixeira and Brian McCann, who in some combination or other will comprise the 3-4-5 spots in their batting order.

"The good thing about this year is that everybody looks healthy," Beltran said. "Especially myself, I look at Mark's wrist, he looks good to me now. [Ivan] Nova is making improvements. CC [Sabathia] looks pretty good. Masahiro Tanaka, also, is kinda like, healthy."

There's a lot of "ifs" there, as there always is at the start of the six-month soap opera that is a baseball season. And there are probably more ifs on the Yankees' aging roster than in most camps this spring.

"I think keeping them fresh is my biggest challenge," Girardi said. "Usually when you have an older roster like we have, it's guys that have played every day that still want to play every day. It's my job to make sure that we have them available every day, but they don't necessarily play every day, every game."

Girardi said he still sees Beltran as an everyday outfielder, and with A-Rod probably limited mostly to DH duty, that doesn't leave many opportunities for Beltran in the lineup other than in right field, which Beltran says is the way he wants it.

"The way I feel right now, outfield is my position," he said. "I just want to be productive. When I play baseball I just want to put myself in a position where I can impact the team in a positive way, defensively or offensively. I know that 162 games is a long shot, but at the end of the day I feel l can impact this game in different ways."

But Beltran also says he never expects to play a completely pain-free season again. "I'm a gamer, what can I say? I love to play," he said. "But I'm never pain-free, let's put it that way. It's been seven or eight years that I'm not pain-free. Some people tolerate pain better than others. I would say I can tolerate a bit of pain."

For the Yankees, the real pain comes not when Beltran is in the lineup, but when he is not.

They know they haven't seen the real Carlos Beltran yet. Even so, they know they miss him.